"I feel like we're getting better defensively, and we can hold the fort and stay in some games through our defense, not because of our offense," Sixers coach Brett Brown said at practice on Thursday. "Our offense is way behind."
With the Sixers, owners of the worst offensive rating in the league, heading up against a team in the Chicago Bulls who have regularly been one of the best defensive teams in the league under Tom Thibodeau, one might have expected the Sixers would struggle to score.
Turns out, it was their defense that couldn't keep up.
The Sixers, down for most of the 4th quarter, used a late flurry of three pointers to nearly pull off the improbably comeback. The Sixers were down 17 points with 7:10 left and down by 9 with only 36 seconds to play, but a pair of three pointers by Chris Johnson, one by Hollis Thompson, a steal by Tony Wroten off of an inbounds pass and some free throw struggles by the Bulls gave the Sixers a chance to tie 2.1 seconds remaining, but Johnson's 43' desperation attempt went wide right.
The Sixers would score 115 points on 91 field goal attempts against the Bulls. They made 12 three pointers. They got to the line 25 times. And they only turned the ball over 12 times, compared to 29 assists, all leading to an offensive rating of 121.7 for the game, the worst rating the Bulls have yielded yet this season.
2 Sixers started scored career highs, with Wroten adding 31 points and Hollis Thompson contributing 21, and Henry Sims had by far his best game of the season, adding 16 points (including a made three pointer) in only 26 minutes played, as he was limited by first half foul trouble.
But it was the defense that struggled to keep them in the game this time.
Perhaps more surprisingly, it was the Sixers half-court defense. The Sixers bugaboo defensively so far this season has been in transition, where they have given up the 4th most points per game in transition. But Chicago scored only 14 fast break points, with the Sixers doing a much better job of not making the bad pass or taking the bad shot on the offensive end that has so frequently ignited their opposition's break so far this season.
Instead, the team defense broke down in the half court, particularly in the third quarter that saw Chicago score 35 points, 15 of which from three point range. On the game, Mike Dunleavy (5-8 from three point range) Doug McDermott (2-3) and Aaron Brooks (2-4) simply got too many wide open three point attempts. For the game, the Sixers gave up 42 field goal attempts where there wasn't a defender within 3.5 feet of the offensive player, including 12 to Dunleavy alone.
Part of this was due to the absence of Nerlens Noel, as Chris Johnson, JaKarr Sampson, and other Sixers wings were forced to help down low, and the rotations to recover out to shooters was not crisp. On the season, Sixers opponents have a 101.4 offensive rating when Noel is on the court and a 110.5 offensive rating when he is not.
But the defensive recognition and rotations simply have to be better. If anything, Nerlens Noel's incredible defensive ability may be masking some of the teams defensive problems. They've improved, but they're still very much a work in progress.
Still, the fight the team had in the 4th quarter was impressive.
Down 16 heading into the final frame, the team clawed its way back off of 39 4th quarter points of their own, including 6 three point field goals. The Sixers, who ranked 30th in the league last season in 3pt% at 31.2%, have somehow found a way to shoot 34% from three point range so far this season, good for 15th in the league. The committed no turnovers in the 4th quarter, gave up no offensive rebounds, and executed their offense at a level we previously haven't seen from them this year.
It was the complete opposite of the offensive collapses we've seen from the team in the previous games.
"We ask our guys often, 'what would you want other teams to say about you?'", coach Brett Brown said after the game. "We want respect. We want to work hard. We want to have a tenacity and a spirit that reflects the city, and reflects a bunch of young guys."
"It looks like guys flying all over the gym and trying to support each other. When people go on the floor, you have teammates sprinting over to help them up," Brown continued. "That means something to us."
Still, even if the team is valuing development over wins, there is still a human element to the game, and psyches to deal with. At some point, it would be nice for the players to get a reward for that effort.
"I think they just have to trust this process, and understnad that the results will follow. And I'm proud of the process that they have followed," Brown said. "They have to understand they've put in a good days work, and it will add up, and it will count for something."
Tony Wroten, who had committed 22 turnovers over the first 5 games of the season, committed only 2 last night, despite a 37.7% usage rate that saw him have a game high 104 touches.
"There were probably 2, 3, [where] you scratch your head," Brown said after the game about Tony Wroten's 27 field goal attempts. "But he was 15 times -- hear that number, 15 times -- at the rim. That is an attack guard."
"We talk a lot about good to great," Brown said about shot selection. "I think that he's starting, and the team's starting, to realize that you don't have to just go torpedo yourself into 7'2" guys. You can keep the ball, you can pass, you can come to jump stops and finish."
Nerlens Noel injury update
Brett Brown said that he didn't know whether Nerlens Noel, who missed the game with a sprained left ankle, would play in Toronto. He did say that he suspects he will play in the next game, which is on Thursday against the Mavericks. That also happens to be the targeted date for Michael Carter-Williams' return.
Embiid re-joins the team
Joel Embiid was back with the team yesterday and was taking shots before the game. Embiid had been in Cameroon to be with his family after the passing of his younger brother.
"It was great to have Joel Embiid back. The team welcomed him with open arms," Brown said. "For him to have walked into the locker room, for him to be a part of the huddle before we get going out to play...it's good to have a teammate back."
"I think it's good," Luc Mbah a Moute, a fellow native of Cameroon and Embiid's mentor, said after the game. "For him to get back to a normal routine I think will help a lot with [the healing process]. We have a family type atmosphere here, and we hope that with that atmosphere he can find some comfort."
Brett Brown post game press conference
Henry Sims after the game
note: offensive and defensive ratings use basketball-reference's formula.